There is a section of the Talmud devoted to the complicated subject of life after death. This section contains imaginative debates on the existence of the afterlife, its location, its contents, and, most importantly, who it is open to. In one discussion, the Talmud speculates that the hereafter is a giant classroom filled with the great Rabbis of yore discussing the fine points of Jewish law for all eternity. For anyone who spent his life devoted to Jewish law and study, this classroom is heaven. For everyone else, it is hell.
Several months ago I found myself thinking about this explanation as I sat in a similar classroom, albeit one located in my Yeshiva in Israel. At the front of the classroom a teacher was expounding on Halacha: the highly logic-based Jewish legal system derived from the Talmud and meant to serve as a guide to the rituals and laws of Judaism and more generally as an all-encompassing guide to life. The topic of the day was the laws of the Sabbath and my teacher’s analysis was as thorough as usual. “If a pot of soup is placed on a fire before the Sabbath,” he explained, “one may take if off the fire during the Sabbath. However, if one places it back on the fire, he has violated the Sabbath.” He continued, “If one adds water to it, he has violated the Sabbath. If one stirs it, he has violated the Sabbath.” He paused, as if expecting the class to leap with surprise, and then continued, “The Talmud brings a case where a person stirred the soup after the pot was taken off the flame. Rabbi Akiva says this person has violated the Sabbath while Rabbi Eliezer says he has not.”
What I can’t begin to explain is how utterly boring such Halacha discussions are. Talmud study is one thing; the fine-tuned dialectical legal analysis and the close text study can be strangely fascinating. Pure Halacha lessons, on the other hand, generally consist of one long laundry list of dos and don’ts, and unlike Talmud study, which is often done as a purely intellectual exercise, Halacha lessons are supposed to have some “practical” real-world application.
On that day, however, the practicality was lost to me and I couldn’t help but muse to myself, with a slight dose of Jewish irony, “so this is heaven?” But then it hit me: was this detail-obsessed, legalistic learning in fact supposed to be heavenly? What was this law, this Halacha that I was meant to study as if it held the key to all existence? Was there any Truth in it; was there even any common sense?
The familiar cycle of negotiating compromises between past convictions and present priorities is the subject of Gerald Early’s essay “Their Malcolm, My Problem.” Early, a professor of African-American Studies, sees two paths that the contemporary black community has taken. On the one hand, Early sees that his young students have embraced radical Black Power and Afrocentric politics. On the other hand, he sees that his daughters, having grown up in a white suburban neighborhood, seem disconnected from their black identity. Early’s own relationship with his past attraction to the Black Power Movement, especially to the ideas found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, come into play as he is forced to negotiate between his past belief in Afrocentrism and his present “white” suburban lifestyle. In one particularly telling scene in the essay, Early rants to one of his daughters about the dangerous messages found in the Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“Never have I been subjected to more anti-intellectual, proto-fascistic nonsense than what I have had to endure in the name of Afrocentrism. And this man,” I said, waving Malcolm’s autobiography, “is the architect of it all, the father of Afrocentrism. This idiot, this fool.” I slumped at the kitchen table, placing my forehead against the cool wood. “But I thought you liked Malcolm X,” she said (90).
Early does indeed “like” Malcolm X; he is nostalgic for the days when Malcolm’s message moved him to be proud of his black heritage. Early finds himself in an almost paradoxical situation: he recognizes that the civil rights movement has allowed him to achieve the suburban “white” lifestyle that was once closed to black Americans. He recognizes that Malcolm X may have been misguided in his demands that blacks separate themselves from American society and that integration has, in fact, been possible. But although The Autobiography of Malcolm X now seems to Early “as narrow as it was vivid” (87), he is also nostalgic for the days when it moved him to be proud of his black heritage and to fight the white establishment. He fondly remembers a story about when he and his friend Gary stood up to a group of racist thugs and regrets that the story means nothing to his daughters. Indeed, he feels that his daughters have “no sense of blackness” (96). Early finds himself in limbo between the Black Power politics of Malcolm X that he rejected, and the Civil Rights Movement integration that has given him the success and affluence he now has. This doubt over the path his life has taken plagues Early and forces him to try to reconcile his desire for a sense of black “specialness” (95) with the knowledge that his children are receiving privileges they never could have in the age of Malcolm X.
It is this feeling of limbo, this sense of doubt over the path life can take, that I experienced that day in Halacha class. The belief I once had in the importance ofHalacha was simply no longer there. I found myself wondering what, if anything, had ever made me believe in Halacha: what had allowed me to treat this elaborate system of rules and regulations as an all- encompassing guide to life?
In elementary school, whenever I or a classmate would ask a teacher “why this detail?” or “why that ritual” the pat response would always be “because this is what God expects of you.” When probing further, a teacher might mumble something about getting “a reward from God,” although this was always said with a tone of reluctance. As I grew older, these questions were replaced with a sense thatHalacha was simply as much a part of my life as school, friends and family. I simply didn’t have the time or the patience to grapple with such metaphysical questions and I gradually fell into a cycle of complacency.
My unthinking acceptance of Halacha, however, was challenged during the first few weeks of high school. At the end of the school day, a group of us would often start walking towards the nearby bus stop. Immediately after the school was out of sight, my friends would remove their yarmulkes, the caps which are supposed to be worn by Orthodox males at every moment. Inside the school building the teachers forced us to wear our yarmulkes, but outside no-one was stopping us from taking them off and enjoying a bus ride home without the uncomfortable knowledge that everyone on the bus knew we were Orthodox Jews. I too contemplated taking off mine, but something always held me back. When trying to identify this unseen force, this feeling of unease at the idea of publicly violating Jewish law, I found my way back to that murmured word from elementary school: “reward.” Surely if God expected me to wear my yarmulke constantly, as my teachers claimed, He would reward me for it. This explanation became my guiding light during high school.Halacha became a system where the more details I followed, the more reward points God would give me. Who knew when or where this reward would be given? The simple understanding that each element of Halacha had some meaningful ramification was enough for me.
At Yeshiva, I found myself surrounded by Judaism and Halacha and soon this explanation began to lose its appeal. I looked around at the many Rabbis and students who devoted so much time to the study and practice of Halacha and began wondering what their motivation was. Was it one giant game of reward-and-punishment for them as well? I often found myself thinking about that strange section of the Talmud concerning the afterlife. The anecdote about the giant classroom is intended to demonstrate that finding fulfillment through religious study and Halacha should be akin to heaven: one should not grudgingly practice Judaism in anticipation of some other reward in the afterlife, because what awaits is simply more of the same. But I could not understand how Halacha could be valuable in and of itself, without the promise of a reward. I continued to practice and studyHalacha, but my actions began to feel petty and meaningless. Still, it was difficult to give up practices and rituals that had so long been a part of my life, even while the hypocrisy of adhering to Halacha without knowing why weighed hard on me.
Towards the middle of my year at Yeshiva, several teachers announced the creation of a new class, the title of which translates roughly to “Applied Halacha.” Intrigued, I attended the first lecture with Rabbi Elisha, a Halacha expert and theologian. Rabbi Elisha’s interpretation of Halacha shocked and intrigued me: he claimed that Halacha is not a set of rules meant to be mindlessly followed out of some existential deference to God. Rather, it can be seen as a complex, changing social system. He stressed that the moral rules of Judaism should always take precedence over ritual, but every ritual also has some basic human value at its core. The intricate and complicated details of Halacha are necessary, Rabbi Elisha maintained, since the more a person remains hyperconscious of the details of a ritual, the more the value of ritual shines through.
Rabbi Elisha’s lectures also tackled the Laws of the Sabbath. For him, the Sabbath and its many intricate rules were about demarcating a special day of rest from the banal, work-filled days of the week. The many laws of stirring soup on the Sabbath were designed to permeate every detail of life with this separation, forcing a person to remain conscious at every moment of the special nature of the Sabbath.
Rabbi Elisha’s philosophy helped me realize that I did not need to abandonHalacha; I needed to reinterpret it by framing my understanding around its human and social values. With Rabbi Elisha’s help, I began reexamining Halacha, searching for the human value behind it. I felt as if I had graduated from the simplistic theological lens of reward-and-punishment towards a new and higher Truth.
But such things rarely end up as simple as they sound at first. Early looks back on his past Afrocentrism with a romantic sense of nostalgia. From a practical point of view, his suburban “white” lifestyle offers him everything the Civil Rights Movement fought for: dignity, freedom, equality. Yet Early on some level regrets the loss of black separateness that came with the end of segregation. He understands the appeal of Malcolm X’s Afrocentrism for his young students: it provides that sense of “specialness” that separateness can bring. As Early sees his daughters adopting “white” values he remembers the appeal of the simple worldview of the Afrocentric movement, even though it is anathema to everything he has become. When I left Yeshiva, I too began to feel a tension between the honesty of my new worldview and the simplicity of my old one. I found it difficult to remain committed to the entire system of Halacha when my rationale was the “human value” of it. I missed the straightforwardness of my old reward-and-punishment model, where every detail, no matter how insignificant, had meaning.
At Columbia, I faced a familiar dilemma: whether to stop wearing my yarmulke in order to fit in with the college community, like many of my friends. I decided to apply Rabbi Elisha’s philosophy, but could not reach a satisfactory answer. I did not believe there was any value to announcing my separateness every minute of the day when I had so much to learn from my non- religious or non-Jewish fellow students and teachers. With Rabbi Elisha’s model, I was still committed to Halacha, but much more willing to let certain rules lapse, especially when the sociological or human value seemed either absent or outdated. My old outlook explained all ofHalacha through a simplistic theological model whereas perhaps my new outlook could not explain it well enough. With Rabbi Elisha’s philosophy, I was simply much more willing to pick and choose which rules of Halacha I wanted to follow. And so, I decided to take off my yarmulke, relegating it to be worn only on the Sabbath or in synagogue.
Gerald Early negotiates an uneasy compromise between his prior faith in Malcolm X’s Afrocentrism and his present American values. Recognizing that “blacks are people of ‘double- consciousness'” he argues that “both blackness and American-ness are real options, each having meaning only when measured against the other” (99). His claim is that the entire black community must try to find common ground between Afrocentric separateness and assimilation into mainstream American society.
But Early is unclear about how the recognition of this “double-consciousness” can provide any practical path for the black community to follow. What must his daughters change about their lives to rediscover “blackness”? What must his students change to find “American- ness”? Early’s solution is problematic because it implies each African American must handle the struggle as an individual rather than as part of the community. The only thing shared is the existence of these two identities: the “strange, yet poignant and immeasurable, record of an imperishable human presence” (Early 100).
The Halacha dilemma is less one of two identities than of motivation; it is thus a more concrete (and perhaps fixable) problem, albeit one that will probably take me many more years to even begin to resolve. I do know, however, that my early teachers did me a disservice by glossing over the question entirely. It took Rabbi Elisha to remind me of the need for a critical engagement with Halacha and its many rules. Other teachers in the Jewish establishment should learn from Rabbi Elisha, and begin acknowledging the complicated questions of what it means to be a Halachik Jew, especially when dealing with elementary and high school students. If the process of learning to think critically and philosophically becomes more mainstream in Jewish education, perhaps more people will be able to make that giant classroom in heaven have meaning on Earth as well.
Early, Gerald. “Their Malcolm, My Problem.” The Best American Essays 1993. Ed. Joseph Epstein. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993. 87-100.